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Please Pass the Machete: The Quest for the Harpy Eagle

Panama Eco-Tour Blog Part 2
Read Part 1 by Dr. Laurie Goodrich
here.

By Jamie Dawson, Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

It was dark in the thick Panamanian jungle, well before dawn. Before the howling monkeys rustled the vine-choked trees, the magical blue morpho butterflies flitted between flowers, and long before the creatures of the rainforest awoke to begin their daily balance of finding food without becoming food, gringos were stirring deep in the Darien, where the wild has not yet been tamed by man. They were a venturing on this mysterious Central American journey and forever bound in fellowship forged by the quest for the elusive harpy eagle.

 We loaded into our trusted van and excitedly sunk into our familiar seats, clutching dirty daypacks laden with our gear, water, and most importantly, copious amounts of dove chocolate. Fueled by strong coffee and the anticipation of fulfilling lifelong harpy dreams, we silently drove through the darkness.

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 Eventually our vehicle turned onto an unpaved dirt road, where two hardcore pickup trucks, seemingly straight out of Jurassic Park and decked out for off-roading safaris, were waiting to transport us to the next leg of our journey…the Chucunaque River. After rousing bumps and jolts, we arrived at the rural riverbank port cloaked in light rain, just as sun began to rise. There in the brown river floated our awaiting riverboat queens: two long, dugout canoes. After cautiously boarding, our canoe captains launched us down the longest river in Panama towards secluded harpy nesting grounds on the outskirts of the remote Sinai village.

 It was raining. We sat completely exposed to the elements without reprieve, as the water pelted us relentlessly for the entire three hour boat ride. I never expected to be cold in Panama. Furtive glances downstream revealed large flocks of disgruntled ibis dispersing in unison to escape the annoyance of our approaching vessels. Only one thought kept my chilled, rain-drenched despair at bay—chocolate. I watched the misty trees pass by and imagined the pleasure of gorging myself with the dove chocolates, tucked safely in my pack, upon reaching our destination.

Never has such an indomitable concentration of raptor enthusiasm been captured in quite delightful Argentinian form as our fearless leader, Sergio Seipke of Raptours. We left our canoes and followed Sergio through the thick banana fields, down the narrow trail carved out of the encroaching jungle. We had been given firm orders to strictly adhere to the trail and remain focused on the pursuit, as we were on a time-sensitive mission. Like a kid in a candy store, it took all of my willpower to resist the temptation to stop and explore the cornucopia of tropical life engulfing the trail.

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 With adept grace, our machete-wielding guides escorted us through deep, swiftly flowing streams as we pushed further into the lush heart of the forest. Finally, after mud, sweat, toil, and water-filled “water-proof” boots, we emerged victoriously to a small clearing hidden beneath the thick canopy. Draped in low-hanging, camouflaged netting and dappled with light and shadow, our eyes fell in awe on a majestic ceiba tree, prominently the highest point in the green expanse of the forest. Boasting superior views, the ceiba presents prime realty for nesting harpies, as few predators can summit the smooth, immense trunk.

 There it was at last, the harpy nest! Thick layers of strategically intertwined sticks lay nestled high in the ceiba canopy. With necks craned towards the clearing sky, we eagerly scanned the nest area for signs of the raptor residents. As the tense moments melted into minutes, our hopeful anticipation transformed into awkward disappointment; the harpies were nowhere to be seen. Despite our valiant efforts, we knew this unwanted outcome was always a possibility.

The female harpy eagle preening her feathers.

The female harpy eagle preening her feathers.

 But then, a large feather-crested head slowly emerged above the nest. To our astonished delight, the female harpy leisurely perched on an open branch, carefully preening and drying her feathers in the sun. The harpy’s mystical, whistle-like calls pierced the still, humid forest air, and her powerful wings shook rhythmically from the effort. Our guides quietly explained to us that she was calling for her mate to bring food. Mesmerized and elated by this privileged glimpse, we realized that the morning rain was truly a blessing. If the harpy hadn’t been wet from the early rain, she may not have left the security of her nest to dry off in the open sun.

 I could have watched the harpy forever, but the time had come to depart. We didn’t want our presence to deter the male harpy from returning to the nest with food, and we had a long journey back to our lodge, best made in daylight. I indulged myself with one last look through my binoculars and reluctantly pulled away from the blind to follow our group back to the canoes.

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 I’m no navigational genius, but somehow the trail looked different on the way back. I was sure we must have made a wrong turn, as our jungle trail was nowhere to be seen, and instead we carefully trudged through turbulent, waist-high water swiftly coursing its way through the understory. A flash flood had overtaken the region, and the water level of the river had risen over twelve feet in two hours. With this realization, a new heightened urgency hustled us to our canoes to depart while we still could.

 I stared incredulously at the swollen river. The canoes had been carried far inland by the rising water and were nowhere near where we had left them. Sediment, logs, and thick debris choked the fast moving current. We bravely boarded our canoes and braced ourselves for the perilous homeward journey. The air was tinged with electric excitement, as we straddled the thin line between adventure and real potential danger. The furrowed brows and distressed faces of our captains revealed the seriousness of our circumstances. Our reflexes were tested as we instinctively leaned into turns and quickly ducked under rapidly approaching riparian branches, hanging just inches above our canoe seats.

 At one point, we lost control as our canoe motors became tangled and clogged with debris. “Please pass the machete!” said one of the captain’s assistants who, against our protests, proceeded to jump out of the moving boat and scramble across the swirling, floating logs to cut away the debris from the motor. Entire unearthed trees swept past us ominously in the floods. I began to look around at my companions and silently assess their swimming abilities. Who would be able to survive and fend for themselves if we were to capsize?

 Finally, the motor was freed and we were moving again! But, wait - what was happening now? Our boat was moving backwards, and we were slowly reversing upstream, dodging collisions with oncoming hazards carried by the current. Utterly confused and equally concerned, I asked the captain in Spanish what was going on. Apparently, the captain’s jacket that contained the cash payments for the entire crew must have been snagged and caught on a branch, as it was now missing. So the captain logically informed me that we were now going back upstream in attempt to locate his lost jacket with the money. The group exchanged worried glances, and the HMS passengers called an emergency team meeting. We decided to pool our collective cash to replace the captain’s lost wages to avoid the unnecessary risk of traveling upstream. However, just as we were about to reveal our mutiny to the captain, against all odds, the missing jacket was spotted in the water. There it was, barely visible, caught on a branch submerged beneath the surface. The captain reached into the water, fervently pulled the soaking jacket until it snapped off the branch, unzipped a drenched pocket and triumphantly clutched a fat wad of dripping cash.

After an exhilarating trek back down the river, the HMS passengers are back on land.

After an exhilarating trek back down the river, the HMS passengers are back on land.

 Relieved to safely return to our port of origin, we disembarked our canoes in high spirits, cohesively bonded by the intense shared experience. The adventure continued as we mounted the open backs of the safari trucks for a bumpy bird-watching sunset ride. Delirious with fatigue and soaring on natural highs, Karen and I enthusiastically waved and yelled friendly “hellos” from the back of the truck as we passed by groups of children, and chickens, from the village. It had been, by far, one of the most amazing days of my life, made even more special by the humorous camaraderie and cherished friendships. It was truly unforgettable.

This blog is dedicated to Hawk Mountain volunteer, Karen Davidheiser, who accompanied us on several eco-tours in recent  years.

Soaring to Panama

Panama Eco-Tour Blog Part 1
Read Part 2 by Jamie Dawson
here.

By Dr. Laurie Goodrich, Director of Long-term Monitoring
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Panama.  I am finally here.  Since I was a university student I have longed to visit here, enticed by reading the landmark tropical ecology studies that occurred here at sites such as Panama Canal Zone, Pipeline Road, and Canopy Tower.  Later on, as a hawkwatcher, I read of Ancon Hill and the clouds of Swainson’s hawks and turkey vultures swirling above Panama City, and a new “bucket list” place was born.

On October 19, five of the Hawk Mountain 2018 Panama eco-tour members arrived at night to await the start of the Hawk Mountain tour to Panama the following day, with Raptours and raptor expert/former Hawk Mountain trainee Sergio Seipke.  Arriving in the dark, my first impression of Panama City was, ”…Wow, this is larger than I imagined.”  The city lights illuminated towering skyscrapers, boldly lit casinos, and bustling streets.

Bird-watching by the pool, photo by Laurie Goodrich.

Bird-watching by the pool, photo by Laurie Goodrich.

We gathered near the pool for bird-watching and breakfast the next morning.  Sergio pointed out a three-toed sloth sleeping in the tree next to the porch, and soon small flocks of crimson-backed tanagers, thick-billed euphonia, and other tropical birds flitted around us.  By 7:30 am, hundreds of broad-winged hawks rose up over the hotel, circling low and streaming to the northeast.  Swainson’s hawks, Mississippi kites, and black and turkey vultures, joined the flow along with short-tailed hawk and hook-billed kite.  Hundreds of common nighthawks glided overhead along with clouds of barn and cliff swallows as well, all possibly having passed over Pennsylvania in weeks past. 

Kettling broadwings and other raptors, photo by Diane Allison.

Kettling broadwings and other raptors, photo by Diane Allison.

During the late morning, continued streams of broad-winged hawks and turkey vultures sailed overhead.  Patty, a female Broad-winged Hawk from northwest Pennsylvania that we had satellite-tagged in 2016, had roosted just 11 km west of our location on the night before. I was sure she soared above us that morning amid the 50 thousand broadwings we tallied over our hotel, and her satellite-tracked pathway confirmed my suspicion!

The following morning the full 14 member group met up with our Panama bird guide for the tour, Domi, Domiciano Alveo, who along with Sergio of Raptours made sure we saw every bird. After a morning of watching tropical kingbirds, chachalacas, and other new birds, we spent the morning hawk-watching within view of the Panama Canal and the famed Ancon Hill. We watched streams of birds rising off the hills west of town and flying towards us. Contrary to our North American bias, south-bound raptors fly northeast to traverse Panama City and avoid crossing water.

Aplomado falcon perched in tree, photo by Brian Moroney.

Aplomado falcon perched in tree, photo by Brian Moroney.

The next day  we explored the impressive Miraflores Locks- Panama Canal museum.  We stood on a fourth floor deck overlooking massive freighters inching their way through the locks. From the deck, we spotted a king vulture soaring and a bat falcon hunting from the Canal Zone light fixtures.

For the next few nights we stayed at the Canopy Lodge, an amazing eco-lodge immersed in forest aside a fast-flowing stream with fruit feeder trays and hummingbird feeders adjacent to large open deck.  Experienced guides lingered to point out birds and a comfortable sitting area welcomed us to never leave.  During our days we explored the surrounding region and visited the Pacific Ocean.  Small clouds of raptors were seen nearly everywhere in the central mountains.  On the Pacific slope, we had one incredible view of an aplomado falcon perched alongside the road and savannah hawks hunting with egrets in wet meadows.  Other birds included a roadside hawk, crane hawk, and white-tailed kite. 

We then moved to another famed eco-lodge, the Canopy Tower.  Here we were greeted by well-known nature and bird guide, Carlos Bethancourt, who along with the staff treated our group as kings and queens.  The Canopy Tower was built in 1960s as part of the radar defense system for the Panama Canal and was also used to detect drug-carrying planes in the 1980s. In the 1990s it was transferred to visionary Raul Arias de Para who renovated it into a center for neotropical-rainforest ecotourism.  Today the Tower has a hawk-watching deck and hosts bird-watchers in overnight rooms set into the sides of the circular tower.  Rain was a daily companion for us and dampened some of our hawkwatching, however side trips were amazing and included a visit to the famed Pipeline Road, Rainforest Discovery Center and a boat trip on the Canal. 

I gained a new appreciation for the trials of migration through Central America as each day rain blocked flights or kept flocks of hawks fighting for lift. After a cloud burst rain amid the forested hills, we watched an immature broad-winged hawk plummet into the treetops to perch, drenched and wet and looking thoroughly dejected.  As sun tried to emerge, it spent 40 minutes trying to preen its feathers before it finally circled up to try to migrate again.

Geoffroy’s Tamarin monkey, photo by Brian Moroney.

Geoffroy’s Tamarin monkey, photo by Brian Moroney.

Tropical Mammals were a treat to see. At the Tower, Geoffroy’s Tamarin monkeys lingered near the upper deck staring at people, hoping for banana gifts, while white-nosed coati and howler monkeys occasionally passed by. White-faced capuchin troops were seen occasionally and three-toed sloths were spotted nearly every day. 

Each morning an optional pre-dawn gathering occurred outside the Tower, complete with fresh-brewed coffee and tea. Sergio and Domi stood quietly in the dark attempting to call in one of the elusive forest falcons. Mostly the forest was quiet until dawn wakened the hummingbirds to hover at nearby feeders.  On the last morning we met at 5:30 am hoping for the best.  After about 20 minutes, suddenly Sergio leaped to his feet and motioned us off the deck to the driveway below. Soon, not one but all three forest falcon species were heard-- collared, slaty-backed and barred forest-falcons!  For me hearing those rare species was the icing on the cake for a wonderful trip.  For the main tour we tallied 39 raptor species and 253 total birds, despite enduring torrential downpours on part of every day.  We enjoyed amazing views of broad-winged and Swainson’s hawks kettling over the rugged hills of Panama, and, I checked off a lifetime bucket list place.

Group shot taken in the Canopy Tower.

Group shot taken in the Canopy Tower.


This blog is dedicated to Hawk Mountain volunteer, Karen Davidheiser, who accompanied us on several eco-tours in recent  years.

Stay tuned for Part 2, which will tell the dramatic tale of the extension portion of this eco-tour!

Batumi: The Final Frontier for Raptor Conservation

By Sean Grace, President
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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It’s amazing that in the middle of the information age, when everything has seemingly been discovered, that the third largest raptor migration corridor in the world is put on the map. The location is Batumi in the Republic of Georgia. I was fortunate to be invited along to the 10th annual Batumi Bird Festival by one of the founders, a former Hawk Mountain Conservation Science Trainee, Johannes Jansen, to witness the migration first-hand during early September. 

Johannes Jansen and Wouter Vansteelant, another graduate or our international Trainee Program, followed up on some investigative work around the site and found huge numbers of migrating raptors along the eastern border of the Black Sea that acts as a funnel for 32 species of raptors draining primarily from eastern Russia. Johannes and the team from the Batumi Raptor Count have documented 32 regular raptor migrants that average more than 1 million raptors annually. 

Sean at the hawk watch site.

Sean at the hawk watch site.

Captains Log: September 2, 2018

I was “beamed aboard” a jet at 12:30 PM from JFK International Airport and arrived in Batumi after a short connection in Istanbul at 9:30 AM, Batumi time.  We picked up Luke Tiller, a British expat from California, and Andres de la Cruz, another Hawk Mountain trainee graduate, both professional birding tour leaders. We headed off to a four-star hotel nestled by the Black Sea, dropped gear, and drove to hawk watch site No. 2 in a four-wheel-drive van equipped to handle the rougher mountain roads. The drivers were veterans and deftly negotiated steep sections and some local livestock that we learn also use the roads for travel. 

We quickly learned that given the enormity of the migration that the hawk watch is a coordinated effort between two sites, as the stream of birds can fluctuate depending on the weather. There is also a strict protocol in place where on most days the birds are counted from site No. 1, while hard-to-see species are counted from site No. 2. Given the volume, not all birds are counted, but rather priority is given to the Big Three: honey buzzards, steppe buzzards, and black kites. The principal birds seen on this day included more than 10,000 honey buzzards and nearly 1,000 black kites. 

 

View of the Black Sea on the way to the hawk watch site.

View of the Black Sea on the way to the hawk watch site.

Captains Log: September 3, 2018

The rest of our elite special forces birding unit arrived and included an eclectic group of European birders including David Lindo who operates under the alias “The Urban Birder,” Dominic Couzens, a field editor for Birdwatching Magazine, Roger Riddington, editor of British Birds, Jason Moss, a young tour guide from Oriole Birding, Tim Le Bleu, a comic and podcaster, Dirk Draulans, a biologist and science journalist for Belgian’s Knack magazine, Roland Weber of German Birding Tours DE, and Tamas Nagi of Hungary Saker-tours.  One American looms large, the esteemed Bill Clark who is one of the world’s leading authorities on raptors and their identification.

Today we became oriented to the area and visited one of Georgia’s national parks with epic overlooks above the Black Sea. We headed off to the hawk count and site No. 1, where we saw 10,000 honey buzzards and close to 770 black kites that are the number one and three species in terms of numbers counted in any given season.


A Pallid harrier in flight.

A Pallid harrier in flight.

Captains Log: September 4, 2018

I accompanied Johannes and some early morning risers to the roof of our hotel, a good location for early morning flights of harriers. Unlike North America, we will see three species including the Pallid, Montagu’s, and Marsh harriers during early September. During the week we saw many examples of these buoyant aerial hunters that take birds and small mammals. The most delicate and perhaps most exceptional is the male Pallid harrier, a slender version of our male northern harrier, a raptor so beautiful it has become the symbol for the Batumi Raptor Count.   

The host serves wine and makes a toast with the glass horn.

The host serves wine and makes a toast with the glass horn.

Batumi is not all about birds. It offers an opportunity to explore the wonderful culture and generous hosts from the region. Batumi has been working to share their culture and hospitality with the formation of guest houses near each of the respective hawk watch sites, thanks to government support to encourage ecotourism. The guest houses provide comfortable and very affordable accommodations, often within walking distance to the raptor count sites. Our Georgian hosts have been very generous, providing exceedingly substantial banquets often featuring four-course meals with wine for the formal toasting traditions celebrating new friends. Wine is closely linked to the national identity, and our host demonstrates how it is done, putting down a full glass horn of his favorite wine as a way of showing gratitude to his guests. 

Counters set up at hawk watch site No. 2.

Counters set up at hawk watch site No. 2.

Captains Log: September 5, 2018 

Today we enjoyed count site No. 2 and were greeted by swarms of European bee eaters upon exiting the vehicles. Bee eaters feed mostly on Hymenoptera as their name suggests and most are western honey bees. They are both highly beautiful and migratory, overwintering primarily in Southern Africa. 

Batumi shares many things in common with Hawk Mountain, including the shooting of raptors by local gunners at these concentrated migratory routes.  The hunters are local, male, and utilize some but not all of the birds for table fare.  Although the impact does not exceed 1% of the total migration annually, harriers are hit at disproportionately higher rates, as they often fly low and slow during migration. The counters at both locations track both migrating raptor populations as well as gunshots.  There is some good news in that the recent awareness at the local level, of how special and significant the migration is on a global scale, and that has encouraged some locals to reconsider this illegal tradition. 

 

Captains Log: September 6, 2018

All week the more ambitious members of our group have joined Johannes for an early morning flight of harriers. Interestingly, the harriers do not follow the stereotype of many other raptors; being buoyant and long-winged, they are not afraid to power over open water and are up before the thermals have had a chance to form in the early morning sun. One of the best places to catch these early morning flights is along the coast of the Black Sea, and the Oasis Hotel rooftop seems the best place to settle in and watch.


Banding the green warbler.

Banding the green warbler.

Captains Log: September 7, 2018

Today we went out for a special treat to observe some “Ringing,” as our British host explains. He retired from being a special unit drug enforcement officer and now pursues a life dedicated to bird banding and hawk watching. In typical Georgian fashion, we were served Turkish coffee, thick enough to stand up a spoon in, to enjoy while we observed the bander process a green warbler. There is a significant opportunity to more formally study passerines in the region, as little work has been done on this front.

The falconer and his set up.

The falconer and his set up.

My attention was diverted from the banding as a local falconer stops by on his way to a hide where he hopes to trap his quarry, the prized Eurasian sparrowhawk. He carries a traditional setup that includes a net stretched between two poles to capture the hawk and a bait pole with a red-backed shrike that is tethered in place and kept calm with eye patches to avoid seeing the approaching sparrow hawks. The shrikes reward is a small amount of ground meat tied in place. These traditional methods date back more than 15 centuries, as falconry is one of the oldest traditions in Georgia. The falconers are a proud group of hunters, and they typically capture a bird in September, train the bird, and then release it back to the wild following the end of the falconry season in November.


Captains Log: September 8, 2018

Eagle was the word of the day with three species seen, including the short-toed, the lesser-spotted, and the booted eagle. The combined day’s total was 96 eagles with the booted eagle making up the majority of the flight. 

Sean with Batumi Raptor Count founder and former HMS trainee Johannes Jansen.

Sean with Batumi Raptor Count founder and former HMS trainee Johannes Jansen.

Batumi boasts the largest and most diverse raptor migration corridor in Eurasia.  Ten years after its scientific discovery, the count is going strong.  The crews that heads up the count are young, dedicated, and have razor sharp identification skills.  It’s nice to know that Hawk Mountain has helped play a role in cross-pollinating raptor conservation skills globally.  In my discussion with several of the founders and key players at the Batumi Raptor Count, it becomes apparent that we are all there for the same reasons: the love of and emotional connection to wild raptors everywhere!